The Ongoing Erosion of Asylum Protections for Victims of Domestic Violence

The Ongoing Erosion of Asylum Protection for Victims of Domestic Violence.

By Pilar Ferguson

On July 11th, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issued a policy memorandum providing new guidance to asylum and refugee officers conducting credible fear interviews at the border to immediately reject claims based on domestic violence and gang violence. The guidance is based on Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Matter of A-B- decision, in which he opined that domestic violence and gang violence are not viable asylum claims. This policy is likely to affect a majority of Central Americans trying to seek asylum at ports of entry along the US-Mexico border. Policy decisions like this one fail to understand the dynamics and realities of domestic violence in cultures and countries where women are not seen or treated as equal.

A credible fear interview is the first step for someone who comes to our border and asks for asylum. Asylum and refugee officers conduct the interview and determine if there is a ‘significant possibility’ that the person can prove she was persecuted on account of a protected ground (race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group). If the officer finds there is a credible fear, the person is allowed to continue their asylum case in our immigration court system.

The majority of the women who have fled abusive situations and are asking for asylum at the border come from three Central American countries, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. However, there are women coming to the United States every day from all over the world who are fleeing extreme domestic violence.

Domestic violence in countries like El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala is treated differently than it is here. In the United States, we have a number of legal protections for women in abusive situations. In 1994, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which has been expanded over the years. States have enacted their own laws to protect against domestic violence. Even though it took until 1993 to accomplish, marital rape is now a crime in all 50 states. By no means is it completely safe for women in the United States, but at least there is a real chance for a domestic violence survivor to attain justice and protection here.

The same cannot be said for the countries from which these women are fleeing. Their governments do not extend the same kinds of protection to survivors and for that reason they should be eligible for asylum here in the United States.

The United States Department of State 2017 Human Rights Report for El Salvador found that while there are laws against domestic violence, they are poorly enforced and impunity for abusers is widespread.[1] The 2017 Human Rights Report for Guatemala also found that while laws against domestic violence exist in the country, the police force often failed to respond to calls for assistance.[2] The 2016 Human Rights Report for Honduras likewise found that the while there were laws against domestic violence, impunity for abusers is rampant.[3]

In ‘traditional’ asylum cases the government of the applicant’s native country is the persecutor. However, asylum law recognizes that the persecutor is not always the government or government officials, but can be a private actor or group. In those cases, the asylum applicant has to show that their government is ‘unable or unwilling’ to protect them from that private actor or group.

This administration is claiming that the persecutors in domestic violence cases are private actors’ committing private criminal activity and inability for “effective policing” does not amount to their government being ‘unable or unwilling’ to protect them.[4] That is simply not so. The United States own Human Rights Reports paint a very different picture. They do not describe an inability for ‘effective policing,’ they describe a widespread societal view that abuse between intimate partners is not a matter in which the police should meddle, and an inability to enforce their own laws due to those societal views and government corruption.

Domestic violence based asylum claims, and although not discussed here gang violence based asylum claims, fall into the purview of the types of cases Congress intended our asylum laws to cover. They are not always won. Not every single person fleeing domestic violence or gang violence who asks for asylum is granted asylum. Those types of cases were difficult to win before the Trump administration took office and now, after Wednesday’s memo, will be nearly impossible to win.

To bar claims based on domestic or gang violence at this first stage, the credible fear interview, will prevent a person from presenting their individual case to an immigration judge during a full asylum hearing. Allowing for a full hearing on an asylum case, gives the asylum seeker the opportunity to present evidence on how their community and country view a certain issue. In domestic violence cases, it allows an immigrant to present evidence on how their government does or does not protect against domestic violence, how society views women and why there is a culture of impunity for abusers.

There are many examples of other asylum cases where the persecutor is a private actor and the harm can be considered ‘private criminal activity’– female genital mutilation cases where the persecutor is often family members or tribal members who are forcing or attempting to force the practice on women; sexual orientation cases where the persecutor is often family or community members; forced marriage cases where the persecutor is often family members who are forcing a person into a marriage. In many of those cases, the native countries have enacted laws protecting women against FGM, protecting LGBTQ persons, or outlawing forced marriage. But, just as we see in many domestic violence claims, the laws are not enforced and the police will not get involved in matters they consider to be ‘familial’ or ‘personal’.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has specifically attacked domestic violence and gang violence based asylum cases because he does not believe they are covered by asylum law as the persecutor is a private actor. The types of cases mentioned above could very well be next.

[1] https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/277575.pdf

[2] https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/277579.pdf

[3] https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/265808.pdf

[4]Matter of A-B-, 27 I&N Dec. 316 (A.G. 2018), p. 320 https://www.justice.gov/eoir/page/file/1070866/download

 

Pilar Ferguson is the Asylum Program Attorney at Human Rights Initiative of North Texas.

America’s Changing Identity: Review of Trump v. Hawaii

America’s Changing Identity: Review of Trump v. Hawaii
by Pete Thompson

The Supreme Court’s Decision to uphold the Administration’s travel ban represents an alarming deference to presidential power in the face of a growing human rights crisis. Our country faces apprehension from disadvantaged groups across the world as our government’s wildly contentious immigration policies continue to sow discord from our borders to the Middle East. From the beginning of his campaign, the President’s statements on the travel ban occupied a special place in this chaos – a smoldering, blunt-force policy that specifically targeted Muslims. Whether advocating for an all-out ban against Muslims on his website or resorting to vile stereotyping, the President’s intent to disenfranchise has always been clear.

With these explosive facts in its possession, the Court in Trump v. Hawaii wavered at the critical moment. The Majority essentially declined any substantive review of the President’s extrinsic statements regarding Muslims and emphasized that a national security directive is clearly discernible. Regarding this reasoning, Justice Roberts stated that as long as the travel ban has “legitimate grounding in national security concerns . . . we must accept that justification” – regardless of religious hostility.

Some experts opined that the Supreme Court’s decision was a foregone conclusion given the extraordinary broad powers of the president to react to national threats under the Immigration and Nationality Act.

But many are moved by simpler inquiries: what is the national security threat? And even if one can be articulated, can it really sanction the discrimination against specific groups of people?

Justice Sotomayor states in her dissent that the Majority “blindly accept[s] the Government’s misguided invitation to sanction a discriminatory policy motivated by animosity toward a disfavored group, all in the name of a superficial claim of national security . . . ” Justice Sotomayor emphasized the similarities with Korematsu v. United States, the case that dealt with World War II internment of the Japanese as matter of national security. In the majority, Justice Roberts disavows the comparison, explicitly overturns Korematsu . . . then essentially reaffirms its ideology. It’s confusing. And highly problematic.

For many, what does constitute a matter of national security is the President’s chronic, alarming rhetoric. But rather than confront the President’s repeated affirmations of discriminatory intent – the source of apprehension for millions of Americans and foreign citizens – the majority only addresses them in a cursory way and essentially takes a pass. In doing so, the Court fails to check an Executive who authored a discriminatory policy that will prevent desperate refugees from seeking shelter in our country, prevent Syrians indefinitely from seeking a better life, and confirm what terrorist cells have long insisted—that Muslim lives don’t seem to matter.

The effect of this ruling will be widespread. For many people fleeing conflict zones, America will no longer be an option. Some effects are more sinister. In Middle Eastern countries, terrorist groups – much like gangs – thrive on self-replicating cycles of poverty. Local groups prey on the weak and vulnerable and make lavish promises to impoverished families who, in desperation, give up their children to the cause. Those children are frequently clothed, educated, and fed a steady diet of anti-American doctrine. Experts warn that the upholding of a Muslim ban – regardless of whether it is a “watered down” version – becomes a highly effective new recruiting tool. As one commentator suggested, those recruiters can now say to their targets:

“You see – the US really does hate you.”

Whether fair or unfair, our policies say so much about us. And it is critical to see the big picture. We have removed the phrase “nation of immigrants” from our USCIS statement. We have separated children from their families. We have enacted a Muslim ban. Our identity is changing. Which brings us to one question.

What does our country really stand for?

Pete Thompson is an associate at Clark Hill in Dallas. He is a passionate pro bono advocate for HRI, having represented several asylum-applicants in front of the Houston Asylum Office and the Dallas Immigration Court. He is the Chair of HRI’s Pro Bono Advocacy Committee.

Celebrating International Women’s Day

 

HRI Female Staff Members. Back Row Left to Right: Kavita Khandekar Chopra, Carolina Pina, Pilar Ferguson, Elisandra De La Cruz, Marisa Arancibia. Front Row Left to Right: Zeyla Gonzalez, Marcela Evans, Elean Martinez, Kristina Morales, Sara Wahl

Today we celebrate International Women’s Day! “International Women’s Day is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women (source).” As Deputy Director of a 92% female staff, I cannot think of a better way to celebrate this day than with all of my amazing coworkers (pictured above).

Each and every member of our staff pours their hearts and minds into the great work we do here. As our Client Intake Manager, Elean is the first person all of our clients meet when they come to HRI for the first time. She knows how difficult it can be to ask for help, and does everything she can to make our clients feel comfortable, relaxed, and welcome in our office.

Our attorneys, Marcela, Pilar, and Sara, combine their sharp legal know-how with compassion and respect, ensuring our clients receive excellent and professional legal representation in their case for immigration relief. I am especially in awe of Carol Jablonski, our Volunteer Staff Attorney, who spends two days a week working at HRI on a pro bono basis. We could not ask for a better Legal Team.

Our legal assistants, Kristina, Zeyla and Carolina, work hard to stay ahead of work authorization deadlines to ensure our clients do not have a gap in their work pay. And when the time comes, they help clients with their application for their green card, ensuring their permanent residency in the United States. These three women keep our legal programs functioning at a high level because of their dedication to this work.

In Social Services, Zainab and Elisandra, work together to ensure HRI’s clients are able to access necessary and beneficial social services. Zainab’s and Elisandra’s tireless advocacy for our clients has resulted in a multitude of new partnerships across the North Texas area. And this Winter/Spring, the Program has hosted Madeleine, a wonderful intern from the University of Arkansas, Clinton School of Public Service.

Marisa, our Marketing & Special Events Coordinator, uses her passion for human rights and her writing skills to keep our community informed of our work. She shares our success stories and organizes our exceptional events, like our 5K coming up on April 28!! 

And I can’t forget Bill, our intrepid Executive Director. While he is not a woman, he is a man who displays nothing but respect for the females in his life, from his wife to his co-workers. I could not ask for a better boss.

International Women’s Day also makes me pause to reflect upon the incredibly women we serve at Human Rights Initiative of North Texas (HRI).

Every day at HRI I see strong, resilient, powerful immigrant women who risk everything for their safety and the safety of their children. Women like Leyla, a Sudanese immigrant who left her husband and life behind to protect her daughters from the brutality of female genital mutilation. FGM is a very real, very prevalent non-medical procedure that is forced upon more than 200 Million women today. The effects of FGM can last for a lifetime, making sex, childbirth and day-to-day life painful.  Simply by being able to keep her young daughters in the United States and away from their father, Leyla ensured their lives would not be harmed in this way and they would not have to endure this barbaric procedure. She in turn, sacrificed everything she had to make this happen.

Or I think of women like Mariah, a young undocumented Mexican immigrant who was stuck in an abusive marriage to a United States citizen. Mariah courageously made the decision to leave when she realized her young daughter would be affected by the abuse she endured. She left without knowing if her immigration status would protect her and allow her to stay with her daughter in the United States. But she knew it was the only option she had if she wanted to be in her daughter’s life for years to come. So she took the chance.

 

Leyla and Mariah not only display the incredible resilience that resides in all women, but their stories also remind us of the importance of intersectionality. In order to truly protect the rights and dignity of all women, we must also protect the rights and dignity of marginalized, disenfranchised and oppressed communities. This includes immigrant women, Black women, Latina women, incarcerated women, lgbt women, women with disabilities, women from low socio-economic status, and so many more.

Leyla and Mariah made the brave choice to leave everything they have ever known in order to protect themselves and their children. These women had the courage to make a leap of faith, not knowing what would be waiting for them on the other side, but knowing they could not remain where they were.

It is a point of pride for me to know that our HRI staff is here on the other side, waiting to help women like Leyla and Mariah. When they, and other clients like them, find our office, hear about our services, work with our incredible staff, and eventually receive legal status in the United States, they know that their leap of faith was not in vain.

When women work together, something magical happens. And this is the magic I celebrate with my co-workers today. Happy Women’s Day! 

What You Need to Know About SB4


The controversial Texas SB4 law has been temporarily halted by US District Judge Orlando Garcia. However, as it is only temporarily halted, it is still important to understand the bill and learn what rights it may threaten.

SB4 punishes law enforcement agencies if they enact policies that prevent officers from asking about a person’s immigration status or if they fail to cooperate with certain requests from federal immigration officials. The law allows police officers to question someone about their immigration status during any “detention.”  Officials who do not comply with the law can be fined, fired and even thrown in jail. SB4 also requires jails to detain immigrants for transfer to immigration authorities if requested by Immigrations & Customs Enforcement (ICE).

It is important to note that SB4 does not change federal immigration law and does not take away any Constitutional or civil rights.  Police are not required to ask about immigration status and cannot stop someone solely on a suspicion that the person is not authorized to be in the United States.  However, during police stops for suspected criminal activity (including traffic violations), they are allowed to question a person about his or her status, and they may be more likely to do so because of SB4. This may depend on the location, the individual officer involved and the circumstances surrounding the stop.

Local police officers do not have the power to arrest someone solely because he or she is here without permission. They can arrest someone for committing a crime (including most traffic violations) and they can call immigration officials and ask them to come to the scene. But Texas police cannot prolong someone’s detention to investigate that individual’s immigration status or to wait for immigration officials to arrive.

Even if you are here without legal status, you have rights:

  • You have the right to remain silent. If you are stopped by police, you only need to provide your name, address and date of birth. You do not have to tell anyone your place of birth, immigration status or when you came to the United States.
  • Police can only stop or detain you if they have a reasonable suspicion that a crime occurred. If you believe an officer violated this right, you should record what happens (using your cell phone camera or voice memos app) and contact an attorney.
  • You have the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of your race, ethnicity or the country where you were born (known as national origin). For example, police cannot question the immigration status of some people in a group that they stop and not others, especially if the group is made up of people of different ethnicities or races. If you believe an officer is discriminating against you, you should try to record the incident and speak with an attorney.
  • Other government agencies, including schools and county hospitals, cannot discriminate against you on the basis of your race, ethnicity or national origin.
  • The police can question your immigration status during any lawful detention, which can include a stop for traffic violations.  All drivers should abide by traffic safety laws, such as using seatbelts and car seats, and refraining from speeding and texting while driving.  You should not drive without a valid driver’s license. 
  • You should not sign anything you do not understand.
  • You have a right to a translator if you are not fluent in English.
  • You should not lie to any local, state, or federal (including immigration)officers. It is better to remain silent.
  • If you have filed for immigration status, keep your “receipt notice” with you at all times. If immigration questions you, you should ask for an attorney.

If you or a family member is arrested, it is more likely that local police will contact immigration and hold that person (even if charges are never filed or dismissed). This was the practice of almost all local jails prior to the law. You and your family should have a plan in case that happens:

Keep all your important documents in a safe place. This includes copies of receipt notices from immigration, birth certificates, marriage licenses, information to access bank accounts, leases or titles to property and other information that is important to you.

-Keep a list of emergency contacts up to date at your child’s school(s).

-Create a list of emergency contacts, including the number of your attorney if               you have one.

Ask for a lawyer or for a phone call to call your attorney.

-If you are held past your scheduled release time, contact an attorney or have a family member do so.

-If you have encountered immigration in the past, been to immigration court, or applied for some immigration benefit or relief, you were likely issued an “Alien Number” or “A Number.” Be sure your family has this nine-digit number so they can locate you in the event you are detained by immigration.

Remember, even when/if SB4 goes into effect, you have rights. This is true even if you are undocumented. Remember these rights and talk to your family members about them in case you come into contact with police officers.

 

 

 

 

 

Are We Still That Nation? The #MuslimBan

Do you remember 9-11? Of course. Extremists who claimed to be acting as Muslims committed a senseless act of terror. Thousands died. Do you recall what President Bush said about Muslims days afterward?

“The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam.  That’s not what Islam is all about.  Islam is peace.  These terrorists don’t represent peace.  They represent evil and war.”

When we think of Islam we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world.  Billions of people find comfort and solace and peace.  And that’s made brothers and sisters out of every race — out of every race.

America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country.  Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads.  And they need to be treated with respect.  In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.

This is what leaders do. The react with dignity restraint and compassion.

Last  Friday evening President Trump signed another in a series of far reaching and xenophobic executive orders. He titled this one: EXECUTIVE ORDER: PROTECTING THE NATION FROM FOREIGN TERRORIST ENTRY INTO THE UNITED STATES

Make no mistake it doesn’t do that. In fact it does the opposite, while betraying the most fundamental values we hold as Americans

The Order states:

“….the United States should not admit those who engage in acts of bigotry or hatred ….the persecution of those who practice religions different from their own….,”

…and then commences to do that very thing as official policy of our country. Three of the executive orders on so-called “border security” do a lot of things that I find really troubling, but I want to just discuss a single issue: it discriminates against Muslims. The executive order “suspends new refugee admissions for 120 days, and blocks travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries — Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya and Somalia — for 90 days. Syrian refugees are banned indefinitely.” http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/01/31/512678699/trumps-immigration-order-is-not-a-ban-on-muslims-homeland-security-chief-says  These are all Muslim-majority countries, so clearly the impact will be on Muslims. Then to make its intent even clearer it creates an exception for those who are religious minorities from those countries, a thinly veiled exception for Christians.

I have personally represented Christian asylum seekers for years, and advocated for their rights. I have gone to Immigration court for Iranian, Eritrean, Egyptian, Pakistani and Turkish religious asylum applicants.  I know what harm Christians fear in places without freedom of religion. So with that in mind, please know I absolutely OPPOSE a policy of giving Christians preference in refugee admissions. We should continue to follow international law and provide refuge for those fleeing violence and persecution without discrimination.

I was once asked what motivated me to help persecuted Christians. I replied, my motivation wasn’t their faith it was mine. As a Christian I’m interested in welcoming strangers, and that has and will continue to include Muslims, and atheists for that matter.

This preference for Christian refugees is opposed by many Christian leaders because of its discriminatory purpose. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/29/us/christian-leaders-denounce-trumps-plan-to-favor-christian-immigrants.html

The discriminatory purpose of this order has been admitted by certain advisors to the administration. According to the Atlantic:

His close adviser, Rudy Giuliani, told Fox News in a live interview that the executive order Trump just signed sprang from a committee Giuliani formed for the specific purpose of constructing a Muslim ban in a way that would pass legal muster! https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/01/what-conservatives-get-wrong-about-the-executive-order/514940/

While the ban is on its face temporary, the head of Homeland Security, Kelly “said for the first time that the some of the restrictions that caused confusion and sparked protests over the weekend could be extended well into the future. ‘Some of those countries that are currently on the list may not be taken off the list anytime soon,” he said.’ “ http://www.latimes.com/politics/washington/la-na-trailguide-updates-1485885194-htmlstory.html

Finally, this executive order makes us less safe. A large group of foreign service professionals have pointed out that bans like this play into the ISIS narrative that the United States is anti-Muslim.

We as a country have welcomed refugees in the past. A few months ago, I was giving a talk, and someone asked me, ‘We have all these people. They are a different religion. They don’t speak English and they have no money. What do we do about that.’ I replied, “If you drive a few miles from here you’ll see miles of Vietnamese restaurants and grocery stores and everything you just said applied to them. Our embrace of hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asians in the aftermath of the Viet Nam War is a great tribute to what our values are as a country.  We are still that nation, aren’t we?

Save a Life this Fourth of July!

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In November 2014 a twelve-year-old girl named Diana walked into our office with her mother. Diana’s mother was holding a letter which said that Diana would have to appear in court for deportation proceedings in just two days. Diana had entered the United States in late September and reunited with her mother after six years of being apart. Now she was facing deportation back to her home country of Honduras, where her uncle had been brutally murdered by gang members and her friends had been disappearing from school one by one. Diana, herself, had been pursued by a gang member to become his girlfriend and when she refused her life was threatened.

We took Diana’s case. We went to court with Diana just two days later and were told to come back in three weeks with evidence of Diana’s eligibility for immigration relief, a seemingly impossible request. But with the help of our amazing pro bono attorneys, we did it – not only for Diana but for hundreds of other children as well.

Two weeks ago, Diana came back to our office to pick up her Greencard, which means she is now a legal permanent resident of the United States. She spoke to me in English and told me how excited she is to be entering high school next year.

This is the impact you have helped HRI create over the last several years. We could not have done any of this without your financial support.

Taking Diana’s case changed the entire trajectory of her life. Now, Diana is not worried about threats from gang members or facing deportation. She is focused on perfecting her English, getting ready for high school, and helping her mother with her two younger siblings. Diana is doing what all teenagers her age should be doing.

During this 2016 election cycle there has been a focus on anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy that we have not seen in the last few decades. It is important to remember children like Diana, whose life depended on her ability to reunite with her mother in the United States.

And as we approach Independence Day, I am also reminded of the principles and ideals our founding fathers risked their lives to defend. Democracy. Freedom. Equality. Each and every day Human Rights Initiative helps clients who are fighting for the very same ideals.

Today I ask you to help us continue to change the lives of children like Diana and to help those who fight for the same liberties we often take for granted in the U.S. By making a financial gift to Human Rights Initiative you are helping save the lives of these incredible people.

Will you help us this July 4th Day?

CLICK HERE TO DONATE

Recent Successful HRI Appeals to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA)

Human Rights Initiative of North Texas (HRI) has won 4 asylum appeals at the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) in the last year and a half. These victories encompass a wide variety of cases and legal issues, but all of them involve clients seeking asylum. These clients fled their home countries because they were persecuted on account of their political or religious beliefs, or because of certain personal characteristics. These cases were originally tried in immigration court, with three of them arising in the Dallas Immigration Court, which has low grant rates for asylum.

 

In July 2014, HRI successfully overturned an adverse credibility finding for an Iranian client suffering from religious persecution. She had converted to Christianity on a trip to the United States, but when she returned home, her husband, a university professor with connections to the upper echelons of the Iranian government, beat her, locked her in their house and threatened to turn her in for apostasy. It is against the law to convert from Islam to Christianity in Iran, and the government punishes converts with lengthy prison sentences, torture and sometimes death. Our client fled to the United States for protection. The judge ruled against her because he found her not credible; that is, he said he did not believe her. HRI argued on appeal that the judge didn’t follow the credibility standards laid out in the law for evaluating whether she was telling the truth. Instead of citing to inconsistencies in the court record, the judge based his decision on speculation as to how her husband and others should have acted and second-guessed certain decisions our client made as she escaped Iran. The BIA reversed the immigration judge, finding his ruling clearly erroneous and ruling that he did not apply the law on credibility properly in this case. Adverse credibility determinations are extremely difficult to overturn. The BIA remanded the case back to the same Immigration Judge, who still has not scheduled a hearing to allow our client to obtain asylum.

 
HRI’s next victory came in April of 2015 when we successfully overturned a case based on a judge’s improper exclusion of evidence. The immigration judge ruled that 5 documents the client had submitted in support of her case were issued by her home country of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and had not been properly authenticated under a U.S. regulation. HRI overturned the decision by arguing that not all of the documents were government documents (the documents included medical and university records from private institutions) and that the government-issued documents could be authenticated (proven to be real, actual government records) by other means. The regulation at issue requires that foreign government documents be sent to the U.S. State Department which sends them to embassies for verification. In reality, the State Department lacks the resources to complete this task and never provides an answer on the vast majority of these documents. Immigration courts in other parts of the country, recognizing this problem, allow asylum-seekers to try and prove their documents are real by other methods. HRI argued that the Dallas immigration judge should have allowed our client to prove her documents were real by using expert testimony, her testimony or some other way, and the BIA agreed. This is a significant victory because the Dallas immigration court has interpreted the regulation in its strictest terms, placing an insurmountable burden on many asylum-seekers here and rendering the court out of step with immigration courts around the country. The case was remanded back to the same immigration judge and we are working to prove the documents are real, or not issued by the DRC government, in an upcoming evidentiary hearing.
In May of 2015 HRI won an appeal for a client from Sri Lanka who was persecuted because he was in the Tamil minority and assumed to hold anti-government views. HRI did not represent this client during his trial in immigration court in south Texas. Another non-profit legal services provider referred the appeal to us when the immigration judge granted the client protection under the Convention Against Torture (CAT) but not asylum. The immigration judge found that the Sri Lankan government had tortured our client, but not because of his ethnicity or political opinion. Because he was granted CAT and not asylum, he is unable to apply to bring his wife to the United States, nor is he eligible to apply for a green card. Government officials had beaten and detained his wife in their search for our client. The BIA agreed with us that the judge was wrong in his evaluation of our client’s asylum claim and sent the case back to the immigration judge instructing him to conduct further analysis. We have submitted further briefing to the immigration judge and are awaiting a decision.

 
Our most recent win occurred in January 2016 for a domestic violence asylum client from El Salvador. The law in this area is evolving, with courts debating whether victims of domestic violence, whose governments either cannot or will not protect them, can establish a viable asylum claim in the United States. The immigration judge found our client to be truthful and to have suffered severe violence from her partner, but he denied her asylum claim as not allowed under then-existing law. We appealed, and in the interim the BIA issued a precedential case on domestic violence asylum law which provided new guidance on the types of claims that are allowed under the law. In our case, the BIA agreed with HRI that the judge should reconsider his decision in light of the new BIA case. This case has also been remanded.

 
As shown above, HRI’s success at the BIA encompasses a wide variety of case types – including a client’s credibility, controversial evidentiary issues, the application of asylum law to a set of facts, and evolving areas of asylum law such as domestic violence. We have been successful at the BIA due to the hard work of our staff and volunteer attorneys. HRI currently has two cases pending with the BIA. Unfortunately, delays in the immigration court system mean that most appeals take 1.5 to 2 years.

Written by Christine Cooney Mansour, HRI Legal Director

HUMAN RIGHTS INITIATIVE’S 15th ANNIVERSARY AND 2015 ANGEL OF FREEEDOM AWARDS

Contact: Kavita Khandekar Chopra

Phone: 214.855.0520

Email: kkhandekar@hrionline.org

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

 

HUMAN RIGHTS INITIATIVE’S 15th ANNIVERSARY AND 2015 ANGEL OF FREEEDOM AWARDS

DALLAS, Sept., 23, 2015 — Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, a nonprofit agency in Dallas, celebrates its 15th anniversary this year. HRI has also announced the recipients of its prestigious 2015 Angel of Freedom Awards: Evan Tilton, Hassan A. Bisilongo, and Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy LLP. The awards will be presented at the HRI Quinceanera celebration, our own “coming-of-age” party on October 03, 2015 at the Dallas Arboretum from 11AM – 1PM. 

About the event

2015 marks Human Rights Initiative’s 15th anniversary.  As we reflect on 15 years of service to survivors of violence, we can’t help but be proud of how far we have come. Latina girls often celebrate this coming-of-age with a big celebration (similar to a Sweet Sixteen) called a Quinceañera. Taking from this idea, HRI is celebrating our own “coming-of-age” with a Quinceanera party. More information about the event and ticket purchasing can be found at http://www.hrionline.org/celebrate15/.

 

2015 Angel of Freedom Award Recipients:

Evan Tilton

Evan Tilton is Of Counsel in Gibson, Dunn, & Crutcher’s Dallas office. Tilton currently practices in the firm’s Litigation Department with an emphasis on White Collar Defense and Investigations. Tilton has been a volunteer with HRI’s Asylum Program since 2008 and has helped secure religious asylum for an Egyptian Coptic Christian, political asylum for a native of Rwanda, two natives of Cameroon, and a native of Nigeria, and withholding of removal for a mentally ill permanent resident from India. His dedication to HRI and his pro bono clients goes above and beyond the average. Tilton often stays in touch with his former clients, inviting them to dinners with his family and taking them to special events. Tilton is also a generous financial sponsor of HRI’s work and sat on HRI’s Pro Bono Committee for several years.

 

Hassan A. Bisilongo

Hassan A. Bisilongo fled to the United States in 2010 after being subjected to unjust and severe persecution in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2009, Bisilongo was summoned by the Special Services police and interrogated and accused of being a political opponent of the government in power. In the weeks following his summons, Hassan began to receive daily death threats toward him, his wife, and two young sons.  In 2010, masked intruders wielding guns and machetes attacked Bisilongo and his family in their own home.  Hassan was beaten, threatened with gunfire, and restrained.  Thankfully, they were able to flee the attack and safely flee the country to the United States. Through the help of Human Rights Initiative, Hassan and his family were able to attain Asylum status to remain in the U.S. and build a new, safe life.

For the last four years, Bisilongo has been an outstanding volunteer for HRI.  He often makes himself available to help us with our Human Rights Curriculum or other speaking engagements where he is asked to talk about his life in DRC and how he fled to the United States. Over time, Bisilongo has become a great spokesperson for HRI, helping carry our mission further and further each day.

 

Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy, LLP

Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy, LLP is the world’s leading provider of immigration services.  Immigration is not just one of many practices within their firm – it is their sole focus.  In the second half of 2014, Fragomen Worldwide implemented a requirement that all U.S. attorneys provide a minimum of 50 hours of pro bono work annually – a policy that has been extremely beneficial to HRI.  Fragomen’s local Dallas office began working with HRI at the start of 2014 providing representation to clients in all of our programs. Fragomen’s support of Human Rights Initiative goes beyond pro bono services – the firm has also become a large financial sponsor of our annual events.

 

 

Underwriters for the event include: Locke Lord LLP; Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, LLP; Archer & Greiner P.C; Vinson & Elkins LLP; Baker & McKenzie; Andrews Kurth LLP; Encore Wire Co; KFC Co; Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott LLP; Baker Botts LLP; Westwood Trust Co; Thompson & Knight LLP; Haynes and Boone, LLP; Perkins Coie LLP; Barbara Kennedy and Jeff Kaplan; J.P Morgan Co; Holland & Knight LLP.

 

About HRI:

Human Rights Initiative (HRI) is a nonprofit that provides free legal representation and social services to indigent victims of human rights abuses and to serve as a community resource on human rights issues. Human Rights Initiative’s clients include victims of human rights abuses seeking asylum in the United States, victims of human trafficking, victims of spousal or child abuse at the hands of a U.S. citizen or Permanent Resident, men, women and children who are the victims of a violent crime, immigrant children who flee from violence and travel to the U.S. alone, or immigrant children that have been abused, abandoned or neglected by their parents in the U.S.

 

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Not a Goodbye, but a See You Again

This summer, HRI had the privilege of welcoming one of our former employees back to our office – this time as a legal intern.  Khiabett Osuna worked at HRI for just one short year, but her love of this work brought her back.  If you ever meet Khiabett, you will be immediately swept away by her spunky attitude, her quick wit, and her fierce passion for the work she does.  Khiabett – thank you for sharing that with us again this summer!  Here are a few words from Khiabett herself.

 

In August 2011 I had just graduated from college and I received an email from a Miss Zainab informing me that HRI wanted to interview me for the administrative assistant position. I was so excited that I immediately went out and bought an interview dress. A few days later I arrived at HRI’s office wearing my new dress, and introduced myself to the outgoing admin assistant, Maria. She greeted me warmly, told me someone would be out for me shortly, and as soon as I turned around to sit down in the lobby she informed me that my dress had ripped open in the back. Before I could even start panicking, Maria pulled out a pink cardigan and let me borrow it. I finished the interview, returned the cardigan, thanked Maria profusely, and accepted my first job ever. Since that first interview, I have not encountered anything but kindness and warmth at HRI.

During my year working the front desk at HRI, I learned so much information that it was exhilarating and overwhelming at the same time. I learned how to juggle multiple calls at the same time, how to have a phone conversation in Spanish while writing an email in English, how to fire up the coffeemaker in the mornings and how to fix a paper jam in the printer. I also learned how to keep my emotions in check when hearing a woman tell me how her husband had savagely beaten her in front of her children, and I learned how to fight back tears when a man who was seeking asylum cried in front of me because he could not find a translator to help him during his screening interview. I also learned how it felt when a woman hugged me and thanked me for helping her get her green card, even though all I did was mail out her application. I learned how to smile at every man, woman, and child that walked through our doors, and how to greet them with a kind word, because no matter what kind of day I was having, it was nothing compared to the abuse they had suffered at some point in their lives.

I loved working at HRI and everyone that came into contact with me that year knew it. I beamed when I talked about the work that the organization did. I felt fulfilled in my work and I felt like there was a purpose in waking up and doing my job five days a week. I knew that not a lot of my recently graduated friends felt that way about their jobs and I knew that I was incredibly lucky. I considered my coworkers my friends and I loved when they would open my sliding glass window, coffee in hand, and tell me about their weekends. I trusted the staff so much that when I did burst into tears the first time at work, I sat with HRI’s Legal Director, Chris, in her office and cried until I had no tears to spare. Bill became Executive Director halfway through my year at HRI, and when I messed up in ordering his business cards, instead of firing me on the spot he gently told me to be more careful in the future. I knew that this warmth at HRI was also a fiery passion in seeing our clients succeed when I sat in on an appointment with Carol, a volunteer attorney, and her client and she asked me to translate, word for word, from English to Spanish “Don’t mess up this chance. Stay. In. School.”

I graduated college not knowing what I wanted to do next, but after that year at HRI, I knew I had to become a lawyer. I had to stay involved with this work, to help those that needed it the most and felt like they were in the shadows and could not ask for help. I wanted to help out the same way that everyone at HRI did, and for me, the next step would have to be law school. When I emailed Bill to tell him that I had been accepted to DePaul’s College of Law, I joked that he might one day read my application for an intern position. He emailed me back, “wouldn’t that be grand!”

Friday I finished my ten weeks as a summer intern at HRI and I can say that it has been nothing but grand. There were new faces in the office, but I still felt that same warmth and kindness from everyone I interacted with. I worked with Marcela in the Immigrant Children’s Project and with Melissa in the Women and Children’s Program. Marcela was patient with me as she helped me understand the world of Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) applications and edited my first brief as an intern. Marcela helped me understand the nuances of the court systems, and how to make it seem less scary for the children and their parents. She showed me how to speak kindly and easily to children and ask them about their terrifying travels to the U.S., and how to advocate strongly and passionately for our “kiddos.” I was finally able to work under Melissa, HRI’s resident Wonder Woman.  I was reminded of the kind of lawyer I want to be every time I sat next to her during meetings with clients and I heard her gracefully explain the complex legal process to them and when she smiled at them and brought warmth into the room, while clients told stories that would make other people wonder what kind of world we were living in.

My first time around at HRI, I found out that I wanted to be a lawyer. After this summer, I now know what kind of attorney I want to be. I want to be someone who fights for immigrants that have gone through heartbreaking experiences. I want to be someone that helps women, men, and children navigate the long and confusing immigration process, an attorney that speaks up about the flaws in the system, and actually does something to bring about this change. I want to help reunite families, give adults the chance to work, and children the opportunity to attend school without worries. More than that, I want to be an attorney that truly cares about the work I do and does it every day with the same kindness that everyone in HRI has shown to me and everyone else that has walked through these doors.

Written by Khiabett Osuna

Celebrate Freedom and Independence with HRI!

Dear friend,

15 years ago I turned to my friend and colleague, Betsy Healy, and said “we can do better.”  Betsy and I were working with a small Dallas non-profit struggling to meet the legal and social needs of traumatized asylum-seekers. As I saw these vulnerable people come to our office, I knew that we, as a community, could do more to help them.

We turned to our friends for their support and with their help we founded Human Rights Initiative of North Texas to help ensure legal representation for asylum-seekers who could not afford it on their own. It was hard work, but every day I would go home knowing I was helping save someone’s life.  Look at us – 15 years later and we’re still going strong!

Last year you helped us expand our services to reach increasing numbers of unaccompanied refugee children as they fled the violent countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.  With your assistance, HRI was able to represent children like Kevin, a sweet and mild-mannered young boy, who was living with his alcoholic father in Honduras. In late 2012, Kevin’s uncle was murdered by gang members in their home town. After his murder, Kevin was followed by gang members whenever he left the house, so he became a prisoner in his own home. He eventually stopped attending school out of fear of being killed by the gang. His father was unable to protect him due to his alcoholism and his mother had passed away in 2002. Kevin’s grandmother in Dallas helped pay for a guide to bring him to America so he could live with her. With the help of our pro bono attorneys, legal staff, and social services department, Kevin has been able to find the stability, safety, and freedom here in America that he never had before – his true American dream.

When I started this work all those years ago, I never imagined how many people we might one day reach. In the past fifteen years, we have expanded our programs to help not only asylum-seekers, but also those who are survivors of domestic violence, child abuse or abandonment, human trafficking, and more. In this last year alone, we have helped over 600 individual clients with free legal services. In FY2014 our pro bono attorneys provided over $3.2 M of free legal services to these clients, multiplying each dollar you donated by nearly five.

This Independence Day, help more men, women, and children, like Kevin, realize their “American Dream” of freedom, liberty, and opportunity by pledging your support to Human Rights Initiative.

Will you help us continue to “do better?”  Click here to donate today!

Sincerely,

Serena's signature

Serena Simmons Connelly, Co-founder

p.s. I’ve shared some of our most touching clients stories below!

JULY 4th STORIES – VIEW PDF HERE

July 4th Stories